Why Are My Calf Muscles Sore?

cramp in leg calf during sports activity
A woman holding a sore calf muscle. (Image: KeremYucel/iStock/Getty Images)

Your calf muscles are the muscles in the back of your lower leg, called the gastrocnemius. You use your calf muscles during almost every activity you can think of, including walking, running, climbing stairs and jumping. These muscles can become sore at times for a variety of reasons both while you are involved in physical activity and at rest. Consult your doctor if you are unable to determine the source of your pain and if self-care measures don't alleviate your discomfort.

Muscle Strains

A muscle strain is one of the most common reasons for developing sore calves. Muscle strains occur when the muscle fibers tear. Overuse -- working out strenuously without sufficient recovery time -- and exercising without warming up your muscles can both be contributing factors to sore calves. Stretching out your calves before you begin exercising can help prevent muscle strains. Stand with your palms flat against a wall and your feet about shoulder-width apart. Rise up onto your toes to loosen your calf muscles.

Dehydration

Dehydration can be another source of calf pain, which manifests itself as a muscle cramp. Muscle cramps are the tight, involuntary contraction of the muscles, which causes intense pain during the cramp as well as a residual soreness once the muscle has relaxed. When you become dehydrated, your body's level of electrolytes, minerals that hold an electric charge in the body, can become imbalanced. Calcium, magnesium and potassium are electrolytes that manage nerve and muscle function; if you're not drinking enough water and not getting enough of these nutrients through diet, you could suffer from calf cramping. Eat potatoes, bananas, spinach and oranges to increase your potassium levels if you suffer from frequent muscle cramps in your calves.

Swelling

Your calf muscles may be sore if you're suffering from swelling, or edema, in your lower legs. If you have not knowingly suffered a muscle strain, it's important to speak to your doctor about swelling in your calves. This condition could stem from a blood clot in your legs called deep vein thrombosis, or DVT, which could be a potentially dangerous medical condition. Lymphedema is another situation in which your calves swell, which leads to a tightness and soreness. Lymphedema in the legs is often associated with the removal of lymph nodes in the lower body as a treatment for some types of cancers.

Pain Management

Treating your sore calves depends on the reason for your pain. Overuse injuries that cause tenderness and minor swelling of the muscles can be treated with ice, rest and over-the-counter pain relievers. Muscle cramps can be managed in a similar fashion, with the addition of a gentle massage to loosen the tight muscle. Calf soreness associated with lymphedema can be controlled through the use of compression stockings, an elasticized garment that pushes the excess fluid out of your leg. Check with your doctor if you do not find relief or if your pain worsens.

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